CRM Journal

Exhibit Review

Washington Perspectives and Washington Stories

The City Museum of Washington, DC, Washington, DC. Curators: Laura Schiavo and Jill Connors

Permanent exhibits


The new City Museum of Washington, DC, has an important mission: to make the capital and its history accessible to the citizens of Washington and to national and international visitors. To accomplish this, the museum's creators have an innovative concept—a central museum in downtown Washington that serves as an orienting hub with links to the city's neighborhoods and to important governmental, business, cultural, and community sites.

Located in a former Carnegie Library, the museum occupies 60,000 square feet of exhibition and education galleries, an auditorium, and a museum store. It is a cheerful space, with yellow and deep red detailing on the white walls of the main hall. Equally cheerful greeters direct you to the two primary exhibits, the introductory exhibit Washington Perspectives and the 23-minute multimedia show Washington Stories.

In Washington Perspectives, an enlarged black-and-white photograph shows children playing in an alley with the Capitol dome hovering in the background. Its label is simple and direct: "Washington's peoples and neighborhoods as well as the federal government have shaped this unique place—the nation's capital." The take-home message has been delivered.

The floor of the exhibit is a huge aerial photographic map of the 100 square miles of the original district that is astounding in its detail. During my 4-hour visit, there was always someone kneeling, making connections, and delighting in new discoveries. The map also serves as a gathering place, a spot where visitors encounter one another and can talk about their discoveries.

Arranged around this map are four exhibit areas that address four eras: Imagining a Capital, Creating a City: 1790-1860; A Modernizing City: 1861-1900; Progress, War, and Protest: 1901-1945; and Changing Neighborhoods and Community Voices: 1946-present.

The design of the exhibit is dense and encourages visitors to explore, open drawers and doors, and stick their heads in cubbyholes to investigate. In the period 1790-1860, for example, one label reads: "Fortunes were made and lost." Another proclaims: "The seat of government lacked the power to govern itself." A third asks: "Slavery in the capital of a democracy?" These issues are arrayed among images of Washington's landscape, early buildings, and residents, with the focus on people whose lives affected, or were affected by, these themes. Those interested in learning more about the themes will find a treasure trove of artifacts, such as an 1802 manumission letter, an 1827 Black Codes, and an 1843 Certificate of Freedom for Jane Taverns and her children, signed by the mayor.

Beyond the drawers, there are four "behind the facade" interpretative sets in each section of Washington Perspectives. Opening the "Imagining a Capital" door reveals a table in an early boardinghouse where, due to the lack of adequate housing and the transient nature of the Federal Government, congressmen lived while Congress was in session. At each chair a question is posed. One asks, "A Profitable Business?" addressing the single women and widows who typically ran the boardinghouses, many of whom barely eked out a living.

Overall, with its multiple perspectives, interactive design, and engaging questions, the exhibit provides an excellent orientation to the major themes of Washington's history. The exhibit curators have synthesized much of the new scholarship on urban Washington to craft the exhibit's narrative. The exhibit's few shortcomings include the absence of powerful artifacts. Although several are strong—for example, a fifth-grader's drawings of the April 1968 riots and an embroidered shawl worn to Ford's Theatre the night of Lincoln's assassination—the exhibit would be improved by additions that better illustrate the major themes.

Washington Stories, the multimedia show, is a treat. The program begins with a hologram of a gray-haired matron, Miss Inkster, who steps onto the stage to deliver an introduction to the city, complete with note cards. But the good lady has barely begun her talk when she is interrupted by other Washingtonians. An African-American woman talks about Washington's U Street, "It belonged to us and we belonged to U Street." Someone complains about the District's lack of representation in Congress.

Miss Inkster is dismissed and the tale is taken over by people from the city's past, including the city's original planner Pierre L'Enfant, early mayor Robert Brent, British Admiral George Cockburn, Frederick Douglass, and Martha Custis Williams, who lived in Georgetown during the Civil War. The show concludes with the statement that Washington is a city of unexpected moments and places, which visitors really must explore for themselves.

While Washington Perspectives and Washington Stories are the feature exhibits, the museum houses much more. The research library resides on the second level, along with changing exhibit spaces featuring Taking a Closer Look, an exhibit of original prints and maps of Washington, and Sandlots to Stadiums: Sports and Community in Washington, DC, which focuses on the connections between athletics and those who participate in and support them. On the main level, two galleries will feature revolving neighborhood exhibits designed in collaboration with community partners. Chinatown: Place or People? and Mount Vernon Square Communities: Generations of Change open in fall 2003. An archeology laboratory and classrooms for educational programs are located in the basement.

The new City Museum of Washington, DC, provides an energizing, welcoming, and informative overview of Washington. Visitors are reminded that real people live in Washington, and, not surprisingly, the museum's Website reaffirms the City Museum's three main messages: "Welcome," "Real People Live Here," and "No Matter Who You Are, You Have A Connection to Washington, DC."

Melissa McLoud
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum